CHAPTER 3

Telling the Bees (Fear)

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

—James 4:14

When Tim first told me he wanted to start keeping bees, I was skeptical. I imagined swarms of angry bees chasing me across the yard, the toxins from dozens of angry stings nearly asphyxiating me and sending me to the hospital. Bees seemed risky to me, and I was afraid. Besides, how much honey could a single hive produce, anyway? Would it really be worth all the learning and labor required to become an apiarist?

Tim is always the more optimistic of the two of us. Where I saw danger and drudgery, he saw the potential of mason jars filled with golden honey, beeswax candles, and a well-pollinated garden. I eventually gave in and supported him, but I refused to ever go near the bee box. Five years later, we now have two thriving hives, situated up behind the house, to the left of the vegetable patch. We love our bees. But I still keep my distance.

I’m glad that in the end, I eventually did support my husband’s apicultural endeavor. As I type this, I’m staring at a five-gallon bucket full of decadent honey. It’s harvest season right now and Tim has been busy with the hives, removing frames of honeycomb, scraping the wax cappings off the cells, and spinning the honey out into the extractor. Truth be told, you can make a pretty good profit off a strong hive; we’ve got jars lined up in the hallway ready to be sold to our friends and neighbors and more than enough to enjoy ourselves.

There was once a superstition in old Europe that said bees will not thrive if they belong to a quarrelsome household. Apparently, bees don’t like contentious masters and, legend has it, they hate swearing.1 My marriage has not been perfect by a long shot, but it’s been happy, one of those slow-burn love affairs, a fondness that has mileage to it and a partnership where little is left unsaid or unknown. Our friendship has aged well, and I am grateful for it. We are content and the bees seem content too.

I recently asked Tim about this curious superstition, and it turns out there could be some truth behind the folklore. Bees are incredibly talented at picking up on emotions. Mammals release chemical pheromones when they feel threatened or agitated. If an upset human enters the space around the hive, the bees will “smell” it and might start acting funny. Moreover, if a beekeeper’s movements are too hurried or frantic, bees might become aggressive in an attempt to defend the hive. This is why laid-back folks tend to make the best apiarists. They know how to calm themselves before approaching the hive. They work smoothly, at a measured and relaxed pace. Like Tim.

Recently, he and I sat up late on our front porch talking about the bees. Even though it was still summertime, the mountain air always turned a bit brisk in the evenings. We shivered in the heavy, humid chill, and the darkness was noisy with crickets and katydids. We breathed in the scent of the season’s last blooms and watched the clouds drift past the nearly full moon. We could hear the horses down in the valley crossing the creek, headed to the barn for the night, so we knew it would soon be time for us to sleep as well. Inspired by all the bee talk, I told Tim maybe I should consider getting a bee suit and trying my hand at managing a hive.

“Oh, it would be a disaster if you went up to the hives,” he said, and laughed, half joking, half serious. When I asked him why, he explained to me how sensitive bees are to fear. They smell it. And no doubt, they would smell it on me.

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C. S. Lewis, in his renowned opus on suffering A Grief Observed, wrote: “No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear.”2 This fear is often born out of that terrible education that loss bestows on the bereaved. What you knew intellectually becomes true experientially: Death is real. Life as you know it can end.

Existence is fragile. On the one hand, the human body is remarkably resilient, able to survive cancers, violent car wrecks, and devastating wounds of war. On the other hand, the human body is made of supple flesh and brittle bone. Vital organs beat, inflate, process, and pump, all behind a meager protective barrier of rib, muscle, and skin. A tiny piece of shrapnel that strikes just the wrong spot can end a life in a moment. A split second of carelessness at the wheel can result in a deadly car crash. A microscopic virus can spread like wildfire, invade bodies, shut down the world, and leave us bereft of millions of loved ones.

Our seemingly secure and affluent lives may have led us to forget that anyone who lives in a body is painfully exposed. We fancy ourselves as invincible. These days life expectancy has soared to 78.7 years,3 and medical advancements render most diseases, disorders, or accidents treatable. In our minds, death has become an avoidable outcome, a consequence of medical mismanagement. Historian Philippe Aries writes, “Death has ceased to be accepted as a natural, necessary phenomenon. Death is a failure, a ‘business lost.’ This is an attitude of the doctor, who claims the control of death as his mission in life. But the doctor is merely a spokesperson for society.”4

Seven hundred years ago, an entire continent was reminded with jarring severity that death was anything but controllable. The Black Plague of the late 1340s is believed to have wiped out one-third of the population of Europe and parts of Asia. Mortality lurked around every corner and the stench of death filled the air as bodies piled up in the streets. Many historians believe that it was during the plague years that the West first began to abandon many of its grief traditions, as there were simply too many bodies to ritualistically mourn.5 Moreover, 40 percent of parish clergy, the men who would traditionally perform the rites of death, succumbed to the disease themselves.6

Understandably, the cryptic and abrupt nature of death was a cultural obsession during this time. Before there were microscopes or germ theory or diagnostic capabilities, illness was terribly mysterious. There was no reasonable explanation for why this particular outbreak was so catastrophic. The ominous presence of death was palpable and deeply ingrained in society’s consciousness. Fear stalked the streets.

Perhaps as a way of processing this fear, the artistic genre of danse macabre, or the dance of death, became very popular in the years following the Black Plague. In these paintings and frescoes, gleeful skeletons or mummies dance and play instruments, and then invite the living from all walks of life—kings, peasants, merchants, and clergy—to join them. The moral purpose of danse macabre is to remind people that the hour of death is uncertain but inevitable for all, no matter your station in life.7

Philippe Aries writes, “Society refuses to participate in the emotion of the bereaved. This is a way of denying the presence of death in practice, even if one accepts its reality in principle.”8 It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to remind us that death is real and life is precarious, but it certainly does serve as a wake-up call. Everything we’ve worked for can be gone in a moment. Plans are derailed. Fortunes are lost. Health fails and hearts break. All this fragility begs the question: Who even are we if death can so effectively and instantaneously stop us in our tracks?

I know the experience of running a million miles an hour in my hurried, happy, and secure life: work, a possible promotion, babies and playdates, church activities, a social life, house projects. And then, suddenly, everything comes to a crashing halt with one phone call.

This precarity that grief introduces casts a long shadow. For a while after a sudden loss, nothing feels good, and nothing feels safe. Innocuous situations can suddenly feel like an existential threat. The simple medical procedure is an opportunity for calamity, the long-awaited vacation is a plane crash in the making, a relaxing family picnic is the inevitable calm before the storm. It’s all a bit like some grim Rorschach inkblot test. Where others see happiness, I see a disaster waiting to happen.

These days, I can’t even hold my daughter without wincing at the delicate nature of her existence. Her skin and bones in my arms feel so much like those of the children I held in Iraq. I know with too much specificity what kind of wounding would take her away from me. And the reality is that if I don’t lose her, then she will lose me. I will die. Either way, this ends in grief. Sometimes the thought of it is just too much to bear.

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Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!

Mistress Mary is dead and gone! 9

So ends the John Greenleaf Whittier poem “Telling the Bees,” written in 1858. In the poem, Whittier tells the story of a man returning to the home of his lover after a season of absence, only to find the servant girl dolefully informing the bees that the woman he loves has died. The hives have all been draped in black cloth.

It is unclear exactly when the tradition of telling the bees emerged in Europe, but folklore surrounding bees is as old as civilization. In the ancient world, bees played a huge role in the mythological imagination and featured prominently in creation narratives from the Kalahari Desert region in Africa to Rome and to Egypt.10 Our ancestors saw honeybees as a bridge between the natural world and the supernatural, between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Archaeologists have found images of bees etched on Bronze Age tombs,11 and the renowned kings of Egypt were buried with honey.

Though the origin of the superstition of telling the bees is unknown, it may have emerged from the ancient Celtic belief that the soul of the dead would leave the body in the form of a bee. The ritual requires that you inform the family beehives when a member of the household, particularly the beemaster, has died, or else the bees will get sick, die, or fly away. This ritual seems to have been most prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Western Europe and the United States, and it has all but completely died out now.12

There was a proper way to “put bees in mourning,” but the protocols varied from place to place. Hives were often covered in black crape, and some regional beliefs stipulated that you tap on each hive, one by one, with a house key before sharing the news.13

Some traditions required that you shout the news to the bees; others insisted that you whisper or sing the news. Some even specified that the words be scripted or rhyming. A verse heard sung in New Hampshire went like this: “Bees, bees, awake! / Your master is dead, / And another you must take.”14 A song heard in Oxfordshire, England, in the 1880s declared: “Bees, bees, your master’s dead, an’ now you must work for your missis.”15 In Buckinghamshire, people would tap on the hives three times and say, “Little Brownies, your master is dead.” If the bees began to hum, it meant they had consented to remain in the hive.16 Bees were also customarily invited to the funeral, and drink or food that had been provided at the service, such as wine or biscuits, was to be placed in front of the hive.17

While tradition held that bees were to be informed of all kinds of important family events such as weddings and births, communication about death seemed to be the most consequential. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of bees dying or leaving the hive because they had not been told of their master’s death. An even older custom was to move the hives when a household member had passed, sometimes to the right and in other cases turned to face the door of the family home. This practice, known as ricking, was to signify that a profound change had occurred in the lives of the family members, and, in turn, in the lives of the bees.18

I wonder how this ritual of telling the bees played out for a family in mourning. How does one share the passing of a loved one while maintaining the relaxed serenity with which you are supposed to approach a hive of wary bees? How was a widow or servant or orphan supposed to reassure the bees when their own life had been turned upside down? No doubt, the ritual itself required that one momentarily collect oneself and calm the quickened spirit. The song was gentle, but the reality was cruel. And I wonder if the bees could smell the sadness underneath the composure. Could they smell the fear?

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People talk about how in the aftermath of a tornado or a hurricane, they get lost in their own neighborhoods. The GPS points are the same but all the landmarks are gone. I get it. After my sister died, I felt lost in my own life.

The people we love most in the world serve as footholds in our lives. They are the bedrock, the infrastructure that stabilizes our meaning, our purpose, our schedules, and our activities. They bind together our past, present, and future. Each plays a specific role, relationally and practically, that no one else on earth ever can fill. This means that we all experience death and grief differently, depending on who died and when and how. Poet, artist, and minister Jan Richardson, who lost her husband suddenly after only four years of marriage, writes:

Grief is piercingly particular… [It] shapes itself precisely to the details of our lives. It fits itself to our habits and routines, our relationships, our priorities, what we have organized our lives around—all that makes us who we are in this world. Because of this, no one will know our grief as we do. No one will inhabit it in the same way we do. No one will entirely understand what it is like to live with our specific shattering.19

Everyone I’ve ever loved who died took with them to the grave a function in my life that is irreplaceable. They were a link in the chain, a star in the constellation that made up my relational life. The people we love and lose share our everyday burdens: paying the bills, bringing home a paycheck, emptying the trash, changing diapers, or planning holiday gatherings. Life is a shared labor. There’s nothing like losing a co-laborer to make you feel helpless and vulnerable.

Tim talks often about the important role each bee plays in the hive, how their rigid commitment to their assigned task is essential for the life and well-being of the colony. There are house bees who tend to the hive and intrepid field bees who scout and gather. There are guard bees and bees who work in the nursery. Then there are, of course, drones. These are the male bees whose only job is to mate with the queen and die immediately thereafter.

“It’s a civilization, really,” Tim tells me. “There’s choreography, smoothness, and fluidity to the work. No one’s running into each other.” He laughs. Perhaps this is why the honeybee has become universally emblematic of industry and civic cooperation. Everyone from the monastics to the Freemasons to the Mormons has used the image of the beehive to symbolize the values of order, community, and shared labor.20

No role is as important as the queen’s, whose responsibility as procreator ensures the continuation of the community. She is the lifeblood of the hive. “As the queen goes, so goes the hive,” Tim tells me. If the queen is weak, the hive will be weak. If the queen dies, the hive will cease to exist. The bees are lost without her.

It’s something Tim is always mindful of, always checking on. He knows that no matter the quality of his work and attention or the dedication of the scouts or foragers, there will be little to no honey if the queen isn’t thriving. The relational, functional choreography is disrupted. It’s the fear you live with as a beekeeper: the catastrophic loss of the one you most depend on.

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Preachers and motivational speakers like to remind us that the command “Fear not” is the most common admonition in Scripture. I used to think that was a pretty cool sentiment.

Not anymore.

The truth is that I am often afraid. Very afraid. And I worry that to “fear not” is to be irresponsible, naive to the dangerous realities all around us. Fearlessness in the face of so much fragility seems arrogant and foolhardy. I’ve sworn to myself that I’ll never be caught off guard again.

I’m not alone. Scripture is replete with the people of God bemoaning the brevity and unpredictability of life. Job laments that mortals “spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure” (Job 14:2). After a debilitating illness, Hezekiah says, “Like a shepherd’s tent my house has been pulled down and taken from me. Like a weaver I have rolled up my life, and he has cut me off from the loom; day and night you made an end of me” (Isa. 38:12). David sings that “everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure. Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom” (Ps. 39:5–6).

Nevertheless, we are called to courage. But how? How do we go to work knowing our labors could be lost? How do we invest in a calling that could fall by the wayside? How do we confront evil when we know that sometimes it wins?

And how do we love when love can be lost? How do we remain tender toward one another, through a plague, through pestilence? How did a mother give her uninhibited love to her toddler in the 1800s, when childhood mortality rates soared to 46 percent?21 How do you form friendships when there are cancers and car wrecks? How do you devote your life to aid work when there will always be terrorists, there will always be earthquakes, there will always be famines? How do you take the risk of love without being filled with fear?

Perhaps courage is not the same as self-assuredness. We can sometimes conflate bravery with bluster, heroism with hubris. James warns about this kind of pretentious confidence:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13–16)

Inherent in this reproach is the truth that we are all limited, that the outcome is always unpredictable, and that we don’t always have all the answers. These are true but tough pills to swallow. The solution, that there is someone—God—who is in control and knows all things, disrupts our self-importance. We are always drawn to the forbidden fruit. We want to possess all outcomes, all knowledge, all explanations. We want to be in the driver’s seat. We are disinclined to trust anyone but ourselves. While God’s sovereignty is the safest resting place, it chafes against our pride.

I went to Iraq in the wintertime. While I was gone, Tim had to check the hive to see how the bees were faring through the cold mountain weather. When he opened the lid, all he found were a few dozen dead bees lying in the bee box. The rest of the bees had apparently absconded. The word “abscond” literally means “to leave in secret.” The bees had outwitted our attempts to master them. It all felt very clandestine. Tim had a few ideas on why the bees had flown away; maybe there were mites or maybe he had winterized the hive too early, but there’s no way we’ll ever know for sure. Whatever the reason, they had vanished.

Death doesn’t always give a reason. Victims of the fourteenth-century plague had no idea where the black boils had come from. No doctor could fully explain my miscarriages to me. It is a mystery why my healthy thirty-seven-year-old sister started experiencing static seizures. But our modern, Western brains like to have an explanation for everything. When a global crisis happens, we all simultaneously turn to Twitter to provide our own geopolitical take, whether or not we are qualified to do so. We blame, we assign responsibility, we virtue-signal.

Arrogance is often the protest of the insecure. Beneath our bluster and braggadocio, we are all frightened children, clinging desperately to our security blankets but knowing full well they might be ripped away from us at any moment. We are spoiled and have become very used to the idea that if we want something, we should be able to have it. If I want an explanation, surely it’s out there, and surely I am entitled to it.

Our inclination to explain away suffering is an indication of how reticent we are to simply lament as a society, to admit our weakness. When our understandings of cause and effect, control, and reciprocity are all disrupted, it’s humbling. Bewilderment is an experience we aren’t accustomed to in our culture. But this humiliation and bewilderment are at the heart of the death wail. They are the ingredients of grief. Death is humiliating. It’s mortifying. It’s incomprehensible. So many of the psalms of lament begin with the question “Why?” And there isn’t always an answer.

We search longingly for answers to the tragedies great and small in our lives. The hope is that we’ll be able to wrap our brains around the loss, assuage our fears, and perhaps avoid catastrophe next time. While Tim was eager to know why his hive had failed, I was desperate to know why the world was such an ugly place, why God would allow terrorist and militant groups to use toddlers as human shields.

“Sometimes, it just happens,” my own toddler likes to earnestly say when she spills her milk or scrapes her knee. I usually try to piece together the events that led up to her accident and coach her on how to avoid such mishaps in the future. But maybe what she’s asking of me is to just be with her, in her frustration, in her hurt.

It takes a lot of courage to simply be sad, to relinquish control and call off the search for an explanation. “If the Lord wills it…” The faith a statement like that requires is born of a supernatural bravery. It is not bravery that comes from control, confidence in my own strength, or certainty of outcome. It is a bravery that trusts in the Lord despite the mystery, one that invests itself fully into the labor no matter the precarity of the future. It is a bravery that trusts in the beauty of love, knowing at the core that it is worth the risk. It is a courage that is “all in” on the daily gamble life offers us. It is a courage that lives openhandedly, as James calls us to live. It is a courage that accepts. It is a bravery born of a holy humiliation.

Faith shines at its brightest when it is confronted with the darkness of fear. Or as Daniel Taylor writes in his book The Myth of Certainty, “Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being… Doubt makes its claims, even daily, and they are respected, but they do not determine the character of my life.”22

The rituals of acceptance, of calming oneself, of regrouping require this kind of bravery. I wonder if in telling the bees, our ancestors were really telling themselves something: Yes, everything has changed. Yes, life is precarious. But don’t give up. All is not lost. Trust your caretakers. “Fly not hence.”

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Shortly after I found out I was pregnant with my second daughter, Lois, I was sitting in our living room reading a book in the sunshine that was coming through the windows. Those were the early days of the pandemic. Our normally busy schedule had come to a grinding halt under isolation and quarantine guidelines, so we passed the lazy, lonely summer days as a family reading, taking walks, and planting our garden. The anniversary of my sister’s death had just passed and I was beginning to languish under the heavy weight of early pregnancy symptoms—nausea, exhaustion, dizziness. All my emotions simmered just beneath the surface of my skin. After three miscarriages, I wondered if this tired, grieving body of mine could sustain a life that was as small as a poppy seed and delicate as a dream. I was anxious. I was happy. I was afraid.

As I dozed with my book on my chest that afternoon, I was awakened by a faint and unusual sound through the screen door, a low humming that seemed to be coming from behind the house, but then suddenly from the side and then in front of the house. I stepped out onto the porch. It was a bright day with hardly a cloud in the sky, but suddenly the landscape took on a gray hue and the sun seemed vaguely obscured.

Tim rounded the corner of the house with a puzzled look on his face. Then it dawned on him. “I think the bees are swarming,” he said with his usual sense of calm. I immediately panicked. What did it mean for the bees to swarm? Would we lose all of them? What would happen to the honey? Should I close all the windows? Would the bees try to attack us?

Tim reminded me of the importance of staying calm and told me to just watch. There we stood, as literally thousands upon thousands of bees flew in an undulating circular pattern all around us. The buzzing sound grew louder and louder, until it was almost deafening. The sky darkened and we held our breath.

Tim told me later that a swarm is a loss, but not as devastating as one would think. Bees typically swarm because the hive is overcrowded or because they sense their queen is growing old and weak. Half of the colony stays in the old hive with a new queen, and the rest swarm with the old queen to find a new spot to call home, where they will presumably begin raising up a new queen as well. Swarming is natural, Tim says. He regrets that he didn’t have another hive ready, that he lost the swarm. But he compares a swarm to a wildfire. It’s a startling experience to be sure, but it allows for old things to die and makes space for new things to grow.

Eventually, the buzzing died down and the skies began to clear. Tim began walking around our property, his neck craned, peering up at the tops of the trees. Eventually he pointed to a high branch in an old pine tree. “I think they’ve picked a place to congregate,” he said. He told me that scout bees would go out later and look for a permanent home for the new colony.

If you’ve ever experienced bees swarming, you know what a surreal experience it is. You feel swept up in some frightful phenomenon that you have no control over, a natural ritual that is as old as the earth, orderly but chaotic, eerie but awe-inspiring. With no warning, the bees made a dramatic departure, and enveloped our home in their communal drone before finally subsiding into their typical, tranquil existence. There was no way of knowing why they had picked that particular day of all days. Nevertheless, there we were, caught up in the din and disquiet of it all.

I guess a great many things had happened that we’d neglected to tell them.

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